(Reuters) - Courts across the country are beginning to take steps to resume operations after having suspended in-person court proceedings to discourage the spread of the novel coronavirus as states begin to relax social distancing policies and reopen their economies.
After two months of no jury trials and courts conducting what hearings they do not cancel by videoconference or telephone, at least 14 states have taken steps to adopt plans to resume court operations, according to the National Center for State Courts.
In New York, the state hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials last Wednesday said judges and staff in 30 upstate counties will return to their courthouses this week, the first step in resuming in-person operations statewide.
At the federal level, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts recently issued guidelines for courts to restore operations, advising them to take into account local conditions and data from federal, state and local public health officials.
Those announcements have come as many state governors, concerned about the economic fallout from prolonged lockdowns, have begun easing stay-at-home restrictions they imposed to deter the spread of the virus.
To prepare to resume business, many courts are drafting up plans that call for restricting access to their facilities, limiting the number of people who attend hearings and allow parties to physically distance themselves within a courtroom.
Judges say that it will likely take months if not longer for courthouses to once again resemble the bustling centers of litigation they were pre-crisis, with many grappling with the logistics of how to reopen safely with the threat far from gone.
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht in an interview said getting the country’s courts back to some semblance of normal is “a huge undertaking” that requires determining how they should be cleaned, who can telework and who from the public can enter.
Hecht, the president of the Conference of Chief Justices, co-chairs a group of chief justices and state court administrators who have worked to develop plans to help courts respond to the crisis and expand their services going forward.
North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who recently formed a task force to recommend steps to respond to the crisis, said her state’s court system was also exploring providing personal protective masks not just to court staff but also members of the public.
”We just want to make sure that we are not needlessly exposing court officials and employees or the public,” she said.
In New York, visitors to the courthouses that are reopening will be required to undergo COVID-19 screening before entering and wear masks, which when available will be provided to them. Courtrooms will also be marked to ensure social distancing.
Staff too will wear masks, and hand sanitizer dispensers will be made available throughout the courthouses, which themselves will be regularly sanitized.
”We will regularly review our safety and other practices, adapting our protocols and facilities as needed,” Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks said in a statement.
Five states plus the District of Columbia either have let statewide restrictions on jury trials expire or were scheduled to end them by May 15, according to the National Center for State Courts. But how to safely resume jury selection and trials in practice remains a key concern for courts.
Beasley said in North Carolina, court officials have asked public health officials to come into courtrooms, map the spaces out and look at what is appropriate, potentially requiring the use of bigger courtrooms for selecting and seating jurors.
”There are hundreds of people over the country studying how do we get back to jury trials,” Hecht said.
In Texas, officials have examined spreading our jurors throughout courtrooms, but they remain unsure how to do so safely and an order calling-off trials through June 1 will likely be extended, he added.
”You can’t drag people down to the courthouse and make them sit together for days at a time, going back and forth, in and out,” he said. “It’s just too dangerous.”